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My principal objectives in leading a service-learning to Cuba were to encourage critical thinking and civic engagement. The planning for the trip began a year before and intensified during the spring semester, culminating in a twelve-day service project in the central province of Las Villas, Cuba. The theoretical framework for the program began with the work of Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian pedagogue. Freire taught a liberatory pedagogy that encouraged students to be empowered to move from passive objects to active subjects of their own history. He challenged what he called the “banking concept” of education, in which students are treated as passive learners waiting for the instructors to “deposit” information in them. He attempted to revolutionize the educational process, and in turn, society, by replacing this teacher/student dichotomy with a liberatory pedagogy where both the teacher and the student gain critical consciousness with a greater awareness of reality through a dialectic relationship with one another.

Jack Mezirow developed a similar pedagogy that he called transformational learning. Like Freire, Mezirow begins with the student’s life experiences: through reflection on new experiences, students themselves produce a paradigm shift, leading to a more inclusive worldview and greater autonomy as persons. Finally, Richard Kiely has developed a pedagogy for global service-learning that encourages reflection on the service-learning experience. He encourages participants not only to expand horizons, but also to transform them. In addition to the pedagogical concern of student learning, global service-learning attempts to meet community needs without falling into colonizing patterns. In our program, for example, we travel with a letter of invitation from our community partner, who assigns us the location and the project.

When I began this service-learning program to take students from rural North Carolina to Cuba — most traveling outside the United States for the first time — I started a year-long orientation about Cuban history, culture, and politics. Through Freire and Mezirow’s pedagogies, I was also able to use this service-learning project in Cuba to allow students to learn more about their own reality. For example, in one assignment designed to prepare for our time in Cuba, I told the students that Cubans would ask them about their reality. I asked them, “What was the form of government, economy, culture, and history of North Carolina?” Initially they could not answer the question in a meaningful way, so it became a research project to prepare them for dialogue in Cuba. Through learning about their own context, they learned how much the economy had changed since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. This is something they knew on a personal level, since a major textile facility, Pillowtext, closed in nearby Kannapolis, laying off 5,000 workers in 2003 — including a parent of one of the students. My students (average age twenty) have lived the effects of NAFTA upon the North Carolina economy, exacerbating the decline of textiles, tobacco, and furniture production and forcing a transition to the financial industry, wineries, Google, Dell, and food research. Marking a transition in the economy, David Murdock, CEO of Dole Foods, has recently opened a $1.5 billion North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. Students have felt these changes in the local economy, but they were not aware of how much North Carolina had changed during their lifetime until they did research to prepare for their international service.

Similarly, the actual service project in Cuba challenged their understanding of reality when they realized, for example, that Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina, was the author of the Helms-Burton law that tightened the United States embargo of Cuba and made it illegal for foreign companies trading with Cuba to trade with the United States. This law had the effect of extending the United States embargo to other countries and making it a de facto blockade. When the students saw the effects of this policy, and the personal involvement of Helms, they were appalled at the humanitarian effect on the personal lives of Cubans and many were motivated to write to their elected representatives upon returning to the United States. In this case, students exhibited transformational learning; they drew upon new personal experiences to develop a more inclusive worldview, and hopefully, greater autonomy as persons.


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